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Melville in the Fluid Medium: Teaching Billy Budd at MIT WYN KELLEY MassachusettsInstitute of Technology have taught at an institute of technology long enough to have observed both remarkable changes and revealing continuities in the way students Iread literature in a technologically sophisticated milieu. In that sense, MIT is not so different from its surrounding culture, and I am not trying to make a case for the exceptional character of MIT. But its history as an institute rather rhan a university (founded, as Stanton Garner frequently reminds me, with the help of Melville’s engineer brother-in-law John Hoadley) has made it self-conscious about its pragmatic, intensely focused mission. It abounds in future engineers, physicians, and scientists (also architects, economists, musicians, writers) who see literature from a variety of perspectives; but on the whole, when these students are not alarmed by fiction, they approach it with considerable caution, and with habits of reading formed by their encounters as much with electronic as with print texts. I have found,however, that this training has considerable advantages for study of a work like Melville’sBilly Budd that, like the electronic media within which my students fearlessly swim, seems endlessly open, assimilative, interactive, and intertextual in its strategies. I have tried in my teaching to make the most of the skills my students bring to literary study, with the result that my sense of Billy Budd has changed in quite unexpected ways. I have taught the book previously in surveys of American literature and seminars on Melville, but had let it lapse for some time. For a considerable while the book seemed to appeal mostly to a small fraction of students with an interest in war, history, or law. Some turned to it for relief after our extended discussions of female and minority writers. But in the time I could generally allot to the book-two or three classes at the most-I could seldom get to the level of close textual reading I thought the work demanded and rewarded, and I often felt I had failed to convey my own excitement about the text. Students seemed aware that they were in the presence of a classic but were not happy about it. For somewhat obvious reasons, Moby-Dick seemed the more appropriate work for my students. Leo Marx is a professor emeritus as MIT, and his reading of the book as a meditation on American technology still resonates powerfully here. The book is more open than Billy Budd to the issues of race and gender, capitalism and colonialism that my students have absorbed from L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 7 5 W Y N K E L L E Y other classes. But also Melville’s watery world is an apt analogy for the great sea of information, washed promiscuously together from all different disciplines and genres, that my students encounter when they surf the web. In Billy Budd, however, the sea, so abundant with significance in Moby-Dick, so joyous in its generative capacities, is curiously absent. It is there-with the Handsome Sailor reefing sails in a storm, tossed on his perch like Alexander on his horse’-but not as a fluid, mobile medium, as in Melville’sother works. More often, it appears as “theblank sea” (61), “thecalm sea” (85),“themonotonous blank of the twilight sea” (log), or “a moderate sea” (116),and I realized that I had begun to see the story too as becalmed, static in its characterizations and ethical debates. Vere, however, refers to the ocean as “the element where we move and have our being as sailors” (110), and I began to relate Melville’s medium in Billy Budd to Vere’s ocean, less a subject full of romantic possibility and more a plastic universe, shaped and acted upon by readers. Thus, although I felt that Billy Budd might be as “dry and bookish” (63) to my students as Vere himself, I wanted to consider Melville’snovella as taking place in a fluid element: not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 75-85
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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